Carolina Kostner of Italy competes in the Figure Skating Team Ladies Short Program during day one of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Iceberg Skating Palace. (Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)
Sochi, Russia — For a 15-year-old figure skater, Yulia Lipnitskaya has amassed an impressive collection of admirers.
Russian teammate Ekaterina Bobrova called her a “tiny genius.”
Another countryman, Nikita Katsalapov, said she is “our heroine.”
And pairs skater Ksenia Stolbova said she watched Lipnitskaya skate and was “inspired.”
Even American skater Gracie Gold, one of Lipnitskaya’s rivals in the women’s competition that begins with today’s short program, paid homage to the flexibility and nerve she showed in her Winter Games debut.
“She’s completely unfazed,” said Gold, the U.S. champion. “She’s got no spine, but she’s got iron in her bones.”
What Lipnitskaya wants is gold in her hand. No Russian has won the women’s title at the Olympics, but the teen from Yekaterinburg has positioned herself to make a run at it in her home country. Defending gold medalist, South Korea’s Kim Yu-na, is the prohibitive favorite.
Lipnitskaya, though, has taken the spotlight. She already is the youngest skater in 78 years to win an Olympic gold medal after two brilliant programs that propelled Russia to victory in the team event. Before her short program in that competition, Bobrova said she worried her young teammate would be overwhelmed by the pressure of performing before a full house cheering her every move.
Lipnitskaya responded by topping a field that included world champion Carolina Kostner, 2010 Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada and American Ashley Wagner. Then she did it again in the free skate of the team event, cementing her status as the skater who could steal the marquee event of the Games.
“Now I fully know the ice and the arena, and I can relax a bit and skate better in the individual event,” she said after the team victory. “I felt calmer, even better than at other competitions.
“I am well prepared, and I always try to be self-confident, even if something goes wrong. Also, I could please the audience. It’s a joy for me.”
Kim, 23, has been sidelined most of this season with a metatarsal injury to her right foot. She missed the Grand Prix season and has competed in one minor event in Croatia. Still, she enters the Games as the reigning world champion and an imposing presence who earned gold at the Vancouver Games with a record score.
Since Vancouver, Kim has competed only intermittently, but her already considerable stardom has escalated. Forbes Magazine last year estimated her annual earnings at $14 million, ranking her No.6 among female athletes. When she arrived in Sochi, a horde of Korean media camped out at the practice rink for hours to watch her training session.
“I try not to feel pressure,” she said. “I am not focusing on winning the gold medal twice. I am focusing more on taking part in the Olympic Games rather than winning twice.”
The U.S. hopes rest with Gold, who looked strong and confident in winning her first U.S. title last month, and Wagner, who would rather forget her experience at nationals. Wagner finished fourth but was put on the team ahead of Mirai Nagasu because of her international resume. She was fifth in the 2013 World Championships and fourth in 2012.
Wagner has dumped the “Romeo and Juliet” free skate she has performed this year, going back to last year’s “Samson and Delilah” program. She had only three weeks to fine-tune it, and while she admitted it is a risky move, she felt she needed the fresh start.
“This music makes me competitive,” Wagner said. “It raises the hair on my arms and makes me excited and just go out there and be vicious. Juliet is not that vicious. I am so passionate about what I do, and so driven to get on that Olympic podium. I just felt in my heart that (the Romeo and Juliet) program was not going to get me there.”